Social workers are at the center of an unprecedented shift in the way Canadians interact with their health care system
Social workers may be the most trusted, respected and feared professionals in our health care sector.
They have been the target of political attacks, vilified for their work and denied the support they need.
They are often the first to know when a patient needs help and often the last to leave a patient’s side.
They work tirelessly in our hospitals and other health care facilities to ensure our health systems are operating smoothly.
In the years following 9/11, many of them were part of the first responders, providing lifesaving care to those who needed it.
But social workers have been in a state of limbo since 9/12.
As the Conservatives’ government has passed sweeping reforms to Canada’s health care systems, social workers are now being asked to be at the forefront of the change.
The government is moving away from traditional health-care professionals who are already required to work as part of a team to ensure patient safety and continuity of care.
In a new report released Thursday, the federal public-health agency that regulates the profession, the Public Health Agency of Canada, says social workers and other workers who work in health-related settings must work as a team, rather than as individuals.
The report notes that a social worker who works alone may feel isolated or misunderstood by colleagues, and it says it’s important for all workers to work in teams to ensure that they can be trusted with patient care.
“Social workers work together to provide the highest level of patient care to patients and are in charge of ensuring patient safety,” said Phelim Kine, the chief information officer of the agency.
“They are often at the heart of a health-promoting and wellness-promotion strategy for health care.”
The report’s recommendations are aimed at creating a new framework for social workers to be part of an integrated team, and for the profession to be supported to do so.
“We’re trying to provide social workers with the best possible training to meet this new requirement, and to ensure they can take part in a team-based approach,” said Dr. Susan Everson, a social work specialist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
“But it’s not a one-size-fits-all.
The social worker needs to understand the scope of the issue and the context in which they work.”
The new framework is also meant to address concerns from the social work community about the “social isolation” that some of the new reforms will create.
The new regulations would require social workers who are in a shared, shared-care environment to have written permission from a physician to be present at a patient for the purpose of communicating with them.
Under the new rules, social work workers would also have to be certified by the Social Security Administration as a “primary care provider” or a “family practitioner” in order to work with patients in their homes, offices and elsewhere.
The regulations also require social worker-led, patient-centred social care programs to have a registered social worker at the centre of their work, as well as social workers from other professions, including nursing and occupational therapists.
Dr. Kine said the new regulations also would require that social workers receive written permission for their use of technology, such as social media, for communication, research and collaboration with patients.
She said social workers need to be aware of the “political implications” of the legislation.
“If they are working in a safe environment, they need to do their best to be patient-first,” she said.
“The more that people are able to connect with a social-worker, the better they’re able to engage and be part the conversation around their care.
Social workers should be doing their job, not trying to be the expert on how to make health care work better.”
The Pheima Institute, an Ottawa-based health-policy think-tank, said it is encouraging that the government is recognizing the value of social workers in the workplace.
“It’s great to see that we have been part of this shift,” said co-author Sarah Hargreaves.
“What we’ve seen is an increasing number of social worker positions have been filled in health care by the federal government.”
Hargreeves said the government has also given social workers the right to join the ranks of other professions in the health-safety workplace, which she said will give them the skills needed to help reduce the number of workplace injuries and deaths.
“This is a significant step forward for social work, and we look forward to working with the government to ensure social workers can remain a part of our workforce in a healthy way,” Hargrees said.